The first six months of this year have been discombobulating. One of the bright spots for me has been working on an absorbing project with my friend, USC Ed School Dean Pedro Noguera. Back in January, Pedro and I started a correspondence that spans many of the hot-button debates in education (it’ll be out as a book with Teachers College Press early next year).
It’s got me thinking about the issue I want to touch upon today, which is why it’s so tough to keep students excited about learning. After all, curiosity is a primal impulse. One of the wonderful (and maddening) things about little kids is the constant barrage of questions. “What is this, Daddy?” “What’s that?” “Why can’t I stick it in my mouth?” The questions are incessant, often hilarious, and exhausting.
It’s always befuddling that we’ve designed schools that seem intent on taking that hard-wired fascination with the world and stomping it flat. Kids start off so interested in, well, everything, and it’s bizarre to see that peter out during their school years. This spring has reminded me of all this once again. With kids quarantined, and stuck without sports or friends, one might’ve imagined schooling would’ve provided an engaging diversion. Yet hardly any of the parents, teachers, or students I’ve heard from have described it that way. Instead, most described remote schooling as a lot of tedious busywork. When I asked about bright spots, I heard that it was easy and flexible, not that it was engaging or fun.
To be honest, I don’t quite know who to blame for the Great Tuning Out. Teachers? Parents? iPhones? Pop culture? I mean, figuring out how to engagingly educate even a single kid is tricky work, and we’ve charged schools with all manner of additional responsibilities — from food preparation to managing major bus fleets. As our present moment reminds us, just juggling the logistics of all this is no simple task.
While I’ve long thought teachers and schools need to do better, the truth is that I’m a longtime high school and college teacher, and just trying to keep two little kids under control is frequently more than I can manage. There’s a constant swirl of chasing, laughing, crying, and questions — endless questions — and it all starts over every 20 or 30 minutes. Trying to read to them, get them planted in front of an activity, or get them to work independently is just one long game of five-minute intervals, intermingled with whining, giggles, and bad decisions.
I look back over the decades to Baton Rouge, La., when I’d have 30 high schoolers in a classroom, and I wonder how I made it through the day. For all my frustrations with how too many districts are failing to meet the current moment, I’m reminded how amazingly tough it can be just to get a classroom of kids to the bell. And that’s not even thinking about whether kids are distracted in class by text messages or staying up late watching YouTube and TikTok.
So, I’ve been sitting here and musing on just how to reconcile two impulses: the conviction that schools should be far more engaging and enlivening than they are and the reminder that the daily work of educating children can be a wearying grind — even for the most passionate and committed of teachers.
I’m afraid that I’ve no special insight into how to resolve that tension, in classrooms or online. So many well-intended reforms that sought to address “ineffective” teaching — from state testing to teacher evaluation — wound up making classrooms feel more regimented. At the same time, I worry that sappy paeans to teachers ignore the fact that many classrooms are deadening places, and plenty of teachers may not know how to do better.
Perhaps the dislocations of this spring and our woebegone experiment in distance education will spark some sorely needed insights into all this. Perhaps we’ll take this moment to find more fruitful ways to think about this challenge. That may be a long shot, but I’m looking for silver linings here.